From Logo online…
Last September, on National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) declared that men with HIV who have an undetectable viral load—levels of HIV in the blood that are below the threshold of detection—are unable to transmit HIV to their partners. This is often summarized with the phrase Undetectable = Untransmittable or U = U.
The CDC came to this conclusion after evaluating three studies that included thousands of couples engaging in unprotected sexual acts in which one partner was HIV-positive with an undetectable viral load, and the other was HIV-negative and not on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
“No HIV transmissions to an HIV-negative partner were observed when the HIV-positive person was virally suppressed,” the CDC reported.
When levels are this low, the virus is so suppressed that it’s impossible to pass on the virus to a partner sexually. Consequently, HIV treatment is now being used as a form of prevention, commonly referred to a TasP (Treatment as Prevention).
It’s been over 30 years since the inception of the virus, and still, there is so much shaming and stigma surrounding people living with HIV. This in large part due to misinformation and fear of contracting the virus. That’s what led Drs. Jonathon Rendina and Jeffrey Parsons of Hunter College to explore whether gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men actually believe that undetectable = untransmittable.
After the AIDS epidemic there was “a sense that nobody could be trusted that had negative effects on guys with and without HIV,” Dr. Rendina tells Newnownext.
A groundbreaking new study found zero transmissions occurred between HIV-positive men with an “undetectable viral load” due to treatment, and their HIV-negative partners, across thousands of instances of anal sex without a condom.
The Opposites Attract study, led by professor Andrew Grulich from the Kirby Institute, followed a cohort of 358 gay male couples – one partner HIV-positive, the other HIV-negative – in Australia, Thailand and Brazil.
The HIV-positive partners in the study had an “undetectable viral load”, meaning they are on treatment to suppress the virus so it is undetectable in the blood.
Not a single HIV transmission occurred across the almost 17,000 times participants reported having anal sex without a condom.
12,000 of those sexual encounters were protected solely by the HIV-positive partner’s undetectable viral load, and in the other 5,000, the HIV-negative partner was also taking a drug to protect against contracting HIV, known as PrEP.
“It really does confirm that undetectable viral load is completely effective at preventing transmissions in gay couples,” Grulich told BuzzFeed News from Paris, where he is presenting the research to the International Aids Society (IAS) Conference on HIV Science.
“Essentially, we’re documenting that this is a form of safe sex for couples in this situation.”
What does undetectable mean? What about undetectable viral load and HIV transmission? And if I’m living with HIV, can I use “undetectable viral load” as an HIV prevention strategy?
Risk of HIV transmission is virtually eliminated when people living with HIV are consistently taking effective HIV medication, (known as antiretroviral therapy or ARVs). It’s well-verified by research, and backed up by many years of real world observation: There have been no cases of transmission in couples where the HIV-positive partner was on meds and had “undetectable” viral load test results for at least six months.
But what does this mean for gay and bi men making decisions about sex, whether in ongoing partnerships, casual dating or anonymous encounters?